In This Coronavirus Wasteland, Should I Be Washing My Clothes as Soon as I Get Home?

We don’t yet know how long coronavirus can last on clothes, so like everything else at the moment, use an abundance of caution

Everything right now is about precaution. Are you really going to catch coronavirus from taking public transit or ordering takeout or going to the grocery store for some beans? We honestly don’t know. We know for sure that the virus is most commonly spread from person to person through the spread of nasal/oral droplets, and beyond that, we really don’t know shit. And so, we must take proper precautions for everything. 

Is wiping down your cereal boxes with Purell obnoxious? Absolutely. Is it probably useless? There’s a decent chance. But could you maaaaybe catch coronavirus if you didn’t? We just don’t know!

So, naturally, out of an abundance of caution, you might want to disinfect your clothes after you go out in public. Again, it’s likely a pointless nuisance. But if you’re worried about yourself or the other people you’re exposed to, it might be worth it. 

Coronavirus on Cloth Surfaces: How to Care for Laundry

It’s still unclear exactly how long the virus can survive on surfaces, with estimates ranging from a few hours to several days, depending on the surface and temperature. Preliminary studies not yet peer-reviewed (meaning, not yet officially confirmed) suggest that the virus may survive on cloth surfaces for up to two days.

Currently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention only offers advice on how to care for laundry that’s been exposed to an infected person. In this situation, they suggest to:

  • Wear disposable gloves.
  • Wash hands with soap and water as soon as you remove the gloves.
  • Do not shake dirty laundry.
  • Launder items according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Use the warmest appropriate water setting and dry items completely.
  • Dirty laundry from an ill person can be washed with other people’s items.
  • Clean and disinfect clothes hampers according to guidance for surfaces.

According to Risa Wong, an oncology fellow at the University of Washington and Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, someone who is super paranoid about contracting the virus or is at high risk for complications could also choose to follow these steps. “It depends on both the individual person’s risk tolerance (both for themselves and for their household members), and also their level of potential exposure,” she says. 

For someone who wants to do everything they possibly can to avoid the virus, regardless of their risk of actual exposure, she recommends the following: “Strip as soon as you get inside, drop your clothes in the washing machine, take a hot shower immediately while touching as little as possible on the way there (or wash your hands first). When washing clothes, use the warmest water possible and otherwise follow the CDC guidelines.” 

When to Change Your Clothes

The other day, a New York Times op-ed listed the routine of one doctor after finishing her shift. “Every day before she leaves the hospital, Dr. Au takes a shower, washes her hair and changes clothes,” the paper reported. “Then she does the same thing at home, her old clothes now contaminated because she wore them in her car. Last, she takes a diluted bleach solution and wipes down every surface she has touched: doorknobs, car handle, phone and so on.” 

Wong says her physician colleagues take similar precautions to ensure any fabric that may have been exposed to the virus is cleaned immediately. But for people who are just going for a walk outside, not coming into contact with anyone or sitting on any public benches, Wong doesn’t see much of a need to immediately wash their clothes. You should, however, wash your hands upon returning home. 

If you don’t wish to wash your clothes as soon as you get home, MIT Technology Review recommends you at least change your clothes, instead. “If you have the option, you can also leave coats and other hard-to-wash items outside to disinfect in the sunlight,” they state in their guide for social distancing. 

Really, it’s all a matter of preference and the level of threat of exposure. If you’re in an area with a high number of cases, for your own peace of mind you might want to follow the strictest protocols, especially if your clothes are actually coming into contact with commonly touched public surfaces. 

In fairness, though, even before the virus, the world was kind of a gross place. And so, all things considered, we probably should have been taking our clothes off as soon as we got home, anyways.